What is a symbol?
As Carl Gustav Jung has defined it, a symbol is a representation of something unfamiliar to the psyche, usually an instance of the Self (or the central archetype). “His symbol” is something not so easy to be defined. Its meaning is not fully known. It is an expression of an intuitive idea whose formulation is not easy to be made. A symbols is a symbol precisely because there is an inherent ambiguity within it. There is no single sided formulation – there is a multitude of meanings. (More on Jung and symbolism you can find here.)
The most important function of a symbol is to transform life energy from a lower to a higher form.
What are the symbols needed for at the first place?
Our conscious psyche, our conscious Self, or ego is capable of using only conceptual language. In other words, it uses terms like white or black, good or bad, positive or negative. It chooses one out of two possibilities. This is what’s usually called analytic mind or analytic logic. Unfortunately, messages broadcasted this way have difficulties finding their way to the subconscious mind. The language that is being “spoken” by the subconscious mind is the language of the symbols. The subconscious processes are symbolic processes, that is, either pictorial or experiences of those pictures. Think dreams, or think dream logic, and you will know what’s being referred to with the term “symbolic processes”.
Symbols can be understood as a new kind of technical tool that enable us to get in touch with our subconscious.
Are all pictures that we see in our surroundings symbols?
No, not at all!
Here comes the problem of distinguishing symbols, allegories (metaphors) and signs. A sign is a conventionally accepted shortcut, a widely accepted indicator of something known. An allegory is a sort of limited symbol that has only one meaning, and thus, it only paraphrases the conscious content. But, a symbol is something quite different. While all the elements of the symbol may be known, there is still something hidden in it, a secret that cannot be fully grasped.
Let us illustrate this on one of the Tarot Cards, for example on the High Priestess Major Arcana. We see there a lot of familiar elements, such as female figure, plants, horns, a cross, pillars, etc. But, despite all this familiarity, the High Priestess Card as a whole conveys a special message about a state of consciousness elusive to the ordinary ego consciousness.
So, given the above discusion, what is Tarot good for?
And what benefits do we get from working with this mystical tool, and/or especially with the Major Arcana Cards?
If we realize how important the symbols are in our life, the main benefit would come from tarot’s great potential in personality integration, which means creating a united and whole personality by embracing all the hidden things or obstacles that prevent our self growth. This is yet another powerful path of self realization, a path of discovering our true being, our true Self.
In contrast to some other psychological methods where the interpretation of the inner state of being comes from outside (often from another person), with Tarot symbols, the querent is at the same time the one who projects his/her subconscious into the symbols and tries to decipher the meaning of those symbols.
At the later stages of mastery, those projections are merged into one whole, creating a personality capable of reaching one’s own intuition via the Tarot symbols, and bringing the great wisdom of the inner world into the light of day.
Still another important distinction is the difference between archetypes and archetypal images. Let’s start from the Tarot again.
What are the Tarot Arcanas actually?
They are archetypal images of the transformation and transfigurations of the human race as a whole. In other words they represent the typical situations which the humanity has passed through, preserved on the level of the collective unconscious.
More precisely, the collective experience of the human race has been registered in the archetype matrix, only to produce the various Tarot Cards at a latter stage. All this despite the possible differences in terms of time, place, nation and race.
It is important to emphasize that certain Eastern traditions, such as Yoga or Zen Buddhism, approach the unconscious psyche directly. This approach can be sudden and brutal at times. The Western esoteric tradition does not go directly. Instead, it uses a more indirect approach, utilizing the symbols, among which the Tarot symbols are very prominent.
In the latter approach, via concentration, visualization and projection, the symbols can be used to transform and put in motion the psychic energy of the subconscious. This in turn, helps in the development of intuition, imagination and creative potential of the mind. This is what sets apart the true spiritual seekers from the mere collectors of symbols and numismatics suppliers.